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Meet Marlys Boone: Student founders of the Marlys Boone house unearth vital St. Olaf history

Marlys Boone was the first person of color and African American to graduate from St. Olaf College in 1935. 

When searching Marlys Boone’s name on the internet, what first comes up is the Instagram for the Boone House, established in 2021 by two St. Olaf juniors as the first St. Olaf housing option exclusively for Black students. The house is located at 211 Lincoln St. North, less than a block away from the original 10 acre farm of John and Missouri Boone, Marlys’ grandparents and one of the very first Black families in southeast Minnesota. 

The founders of the Boone House reached out to St. Olaf archives when naming the house to identify the first Black graduate of St. Olaf. This was the students’ first time ever hearing the name Marlys Boone. There is no official St. Olaf webpage that details Marlys as the first Black student to graduate, however. Some records can be found within the St. Olaf archives, many of which were unearthed by past St. Olaf archivist Jeff Sauve.

“It has been almost a hundred years since [Marlys Boone] graduated. Each year more and more Black people graduate from this school. And each year we grow further away from the fact that there was someone who set that precedent for us to be allowed in this space, and participate in this space,” said Mariam Prater ’23, one of the presidents of Boone House this semester. “For a private liberal arts school like St. Olaf to not have that name out there, to have sat on the knowledge for almost a decade – it feels disheartening.” 

The Boone family in Northfield dates back all the way to 1866, when John Boone brought his wife and ten children to the city after serving in the Civil war as a Union Soldier in the Missouri 18th Infantry. Both John and his wife were enslaved in North Carolina as children before moving to Minnesota. This history can be found in a Twin Cities PBS special on African American Civil War stories entitled “North Star” that aired in 2018. The history of the Boone family’s time in Northfield shows up in some archival materials from the Northfield News and both Carleton and St. Olaf archives. 

Marlys grew up in Northfield with her father Robert Boone and Norwegian mother Ruth Larson, who were married in 1912. She graduated as valedictorian from Northfield High School in 1931 before graduating with honors from St. Olaf. Marlys was an English major and participated in theater productions on campus such as “The Tempest,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “A Winter’s Tale.” In the 1935 yearbook it also lists her as part of the English Club and Interclass Hockey.

“Being able to look over all the archived material that we found, we learned that this history is not a small piece of history. It is a really big deal, state-wide,”  Boone House resident Cameron Hubbard ’24 said. “The fact that no one knows that it was in Northfield, at a private liberal arts school, St. Olaf, [that Marlys Boone] graduated with honors, graduated Northfield High Valedictorian, and a Black woman and a Black family doing this work is really, really profound.”

 

Aims of the House 

The Boone House works not only to recognize and uplift the legacy and history of Marlys and her family, but also to create a safe space for Black students at St. Olaf. 

“I want Black students to actively use this house as a safe haven. I remember during the entire fall semester of 2020, I had to bring Black students into my tiny 131 Ytterboe dorm,” said Boone House’s founder Emmanuel Bioh ’22. “I can now say there is a physical space for Black students to utilize not even just during times of trauma but during times of enjoyment.” 

Black organizations on St. Olaf campus include Black Ensemble established in 2019, the Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE) established in 1969, and beginning this year, the Boone House. The Boone House is unique in that it provides a physical space dedicated to Black students exclusively. 

“It is not always a safe environment existing in communal living spaces and so having a physical living space for Black students is the biggest accomplishment. This school should be taking pride in that,” Prater said. 

Eight students currently reside in the house, which also holds open houses for all students every Sunday from 3-5 p.m. alongside other community events like sledding and the Boone House Bash, a party for Black students only. The residents of the house envision it as a community collective that allows Black students on campus to come together. 

Marlys Boone House residents also host a KSTO Radio show called “Boone House” on Fridays from 6-7 p.m.. In addition, some members of the house proposed a Black hair care vending machine that will be implemented next year through the Student Government Association’s Ole Tank program. 

“Building up the Black community and making it so that Black freshman and Black sophomores can still get to know people and have that experience of community – That is my primary focus,” Boone House resident Ashley Sarpong ’23 said. 

House events are funded by the students that live there and rarely receive advertising from the school.

“We don’t get any support at all. We do all of this ourselves, everything. Getting the word out to campus: that’s us. Making posters: that’s us. Getting repairs done: that’s us. Talking to the Taylor Center for events: that’s us. Talking to Pamela, talking to MarComm. It is all on us,” Prater said. 

Black students created the Boone House out of a need for a Black-only safe space, in response to experiences of racism on campus from students as well as professors. Feelings of isolation and ostracization expressed by members of the Boone House extend into social life, curriculum, and one-on-one experiences. 

“You are actively fighting to continue to be educated on this campus every day. Entering these predominantly white spaces, you have to put on a suit of armor, really, and you have to prepare yourself mentally,” Sarpong said. 

“The amount of stories, if you were to take time and stay with us for a day, you would be shocked by the amount of stories that each person in this house has had with a professor who has said racist, blatant, sh*t. It’s horrible and horrifying,” Hubbard said. “I don’t understand how any [Black] student would have any want to do any type of homework, to just go to class or even get up in the morning knowing that we have to constantly fight for our existence on  this campus.” 

 

Marlys Boone’s legacy continues

For the Boone House, a part of honoring Marlys’ legacy is continuing to learn about her life and experience, and how it might compare to their own. 

Marlys Boone’s granddaughter, Cailley Chella, is a journalist who recently published a 20-minute documentary story special for Black History Month about Marlys Boone’s history, which features testimony from Boone House residents. 

Within this documentary, she discusses the fact that after graduating from St. Olaf, moving to Arizona, and marrying, Marlys Boone stopped openly identifying as Black, to the point that Chella found out about her grandmother’s race only years after she had died. Marlys Boone passed as white her entire adult life. When Chella talked to Mica Anders, a museum fellow and genealogist at the African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis, Anders concluded that this type of identity erasure was not uncommon. 

“Certain families became super active in the Black community and like super champions of the Black cause, and then other members of the same family [. . .] started white passing,” Anders said in her interview with Chella. 

There is some contention as to how the Boone family was treated during their time in Northfield and some discussion as to whether or not Marlys stopped publicly identifying as Black because of community oppression and isolation. 

What we have to go off of are a small amount of archival records. Some records show community celebration of the Boone family. A Northfield News article covered John and Missouri’s Golden Wedding Anniversary party. Others point toward a different reality. A letter from 1937 expresses that Robert and Ruth, Marlys’ parents, were “both socially ostracized.” 

“It doesn’t surprise me that she would have had to take the extent of survival to identify as white because of just what I know I go through,” Bioh said in the Boone House interview with Chella for her documentary. 

Chella’s docu-story is called “Rooted in Secrets” and can be watched on the Valley News Live website. 

Looking forward, the Boone house is planning to continue its community outreach to build inclusive spaces for Black students on campus. Next year they will be relocating to a townhouse in the new student housing development on St. Olaf Avenue. This location will increase the old house’s capacity by four beds and one bathroom, as well as improving upon general living conditions in a brand new space. 

Before becoming the Boone House, 211 Lincoln St N. was called the Bly House and was most recently used for storage. There have been continued maintenance issues throughout the year, and the house members are excited about their relocation. The Boone House is accepting applications for new residents from any Black students interested until March 22. Email marlysboonehouse@stolaf.edu to apply.

A part of the house’s mission is also the hope to affect more institutional changes at St. Olaf as well as clearer celebration and recognition of Marlys Boone and her family history. 

“I think that this school needs to invest in mental health resources specifically for Black students because there is too much trauma. It’s not healthy and it’s not our fault,” Sarpong said.

“I would love for a plaque or some physical reminder or physical thing to take up space on campus honoring Marlys Boone and the things that she has done,” Prater said. 

Boone House is working to contact Northfield High School, as well as Black organizations on campus, in hopes for more frequent collaboration and coalition. 

“We would love to have all hands on deck. There is no elitism. When we say Black students come to the house, we mean all Black students come to the house,” Bioh said. 

Boone House will continue to hold events throughout the semester that can be seen advertised on their instagram page, @marlysboonehouse. 

“I’m graduating soon and if there was one thing I would wish for this house to do after I leave, especially, is to be a symbol of community and a resource of community,” Bioh said. “Not just this year or next year, but for the entirety of the existence of this institution.”

 

peacor2@stolaf.edu

 

A note from the writer: Working closely with the Boone House, this story is meant to represent the authentic, non-censored stories of Boone House members as well as factual history about the Boone family. Coming from white privilege and position, I recognize that I could never do full justice to a history and experience that is not mine. I deeply thank those quoted for sharing their stories with me and with our community.